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Atlantic Division Watch (February 1)

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With the All-Star break over, it’s time for the NHL playoff races to intensify. Every week, we’ll provide updates for each division’s outlook. The biggest contenders and/or closest races will receive the greatest amount of attention.

Bold = playoff contender; Italics = likely lottery fodder.

Atlantic Division outlook

1. Philadelphia Flyers (33-12-5 for 71 pts; 50 Games Played)

Current streak: Two wins in a row

Week ahead: Road vs. Tampa Bay (Tuesday), home against Nashville (Thursday) and home vs. Dallas (Saturday).

Thoughts: The Flyers have a challenging week ahead for them, although they at least won’t have to deal with any back-to-back games. The Lightning, Predators and Stars are all capable opponents so this will be an interesting test for Philly.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins (31-15-4 for 66 pts; 50 GP)

Current streak: Two game winning streak

Week ahead: road vs. Rangers (Tues), home against Islanders (Wed), home vs. Buffalo (Fri) and away against Washington (Sun)

Thoughts: With Sidney Crosby out indefinitely (perhaps until the playoffs, even?) and Evgeni Malkin banged up in his own right, it seems like the Penguins should focus on staying in the four to six seed range because the Flyers are pulling away.

3. New York Rangers (29-20-3 for 61 pts; 52 GP)

Current streak: One loss.

Week ahead: home vs. Pittsburgh (Tues), home vs. New Jersey (Thurs) and away against Montreal (Saturday).

Thoughts: The Rangers’ hopes of winning the division are extremely slim, so they should instead try to get healthy for the playoffs. It looks like the break will do them some good, as they look to integrate some important pieces back into the lineup soon.

4. New York Islanders (15-27-7 for 37 pts; 49 GP)

Current streak: three game losing streak

Week ahead: @ Atlanta (Tues), @ Pittsburgh (Wed) and home vs. Ottawa.

Thoughts: Time to get some more draft picks, Garth.

5. New Jersey Devils (16-30-3 for 35 pts; 49 GP)

Current streak: one game losing streak.

Week ahead: vs. Ottawa (Tues), @ Rangers (Thurs), home vs. Florida (Fri) and road vs. Montreal (Sun).

Thoughts: If Lou Lamoriello isn’t already working the phones to move nonessential vets, then maybe he really did “lose it.”

Pens coach praises Murray: ‘He doesn’t get rattled’

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Hot take: the Pittsburgh Penguins probably won’t deal with a goalie controversy going into Game 7.

(Ugh, that’s a failed hot take … you can’t use “probably” in those things, right?)

Matt Murray was fantastic at times during Game 6, much like his counterpart in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s net in a 5-2 win. Granted, there were some tense moments during the Bolts’ late-game push:

Much has been made about experience, especially from those calling for Marc-Andre Fleury earlier in this series. It’s telling that the praise Murray draws sure sounds like what you’d expect from a “veteran.”

“He has a calming influence,” Sullivan said. “He doesn’t get rattled. If he lets a goal in, he just continues to compete. That’s usually an attribute that usually takes years to acquire that, and to have it at such a young age is impressive.”

Thanks in part to Murray’s efforts in Game 6, he’ll get a chance to prove his resolve in something new: a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Final.

Once again, his teammates seem pretty confident in this elimination situation.

Lightning lament Game 6 effort, Cooper doesn’t blame disallowed goal

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The Tampa Bay Lightning seemed to sleepwalk through the first two periods of Game 6, and waking up in the final frame wasn’t enough to edge the Pittsburgh Penguins.

On the bright side, at least the Lightning aren’t in denial about that weak first 40 minutes.

It seemed like everyone on the team more or less admitted as much in unison.

Brian Boyle added that he felt like the Lightning tiptoed around this game. Jon Cooper often provides great quips, yet he was pretty matter-of-fact in this case.

Many will linger on this disallowed goal for Jonathan Drouin, which would have provided a 1-0 lead for Tampa Bay in the first period.

Let’s face it; that moment came pretty early in the game. To Tampa Bay’s credit, they’re not pinning the loss on that setback.

Now they must set their sights on competing throughout Game 7 … and maybe earning some bounces of their own in the process.

Read more about Game 6 here.

Penguins force Game 7 after holding off Lightning rally

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The Pittsburgh Penguins played with fire late in Game 6, but they also showed plenty of fire in beating the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-2.

With that, this thrilling Eastern Conference Final will go the distance with Game 7 on Thursday.

There are at least a few “What if?” scenarios to consider, especially for the Lightning.

What if that offside goal counted?

Jonathan Drouin played some fantastic hockey on Tuesday, yet his most memorable moment came via something that ultimately “didn’t happen.” An offside call on a goal review kept a 1-0 lead from happening for Tampa Bay:

Instead, the Penguins poured it on during the first period and eventually went up 1-0. They then carried that momentum over through the second period, adding two more goals to go up 3-0 heading into the final frame.

What if Tampa Bay played more like they did in the third period?

The difference between the level of play in the first 40 minutes and the final frame were night-and-day.

Now, you can make a chicken-and-the-egg argument here. Did the Penguins take their feet off the gas with that lead? Maybe Jon Cooper finally unleashed the hounds when the Lightning were facing a big deficit?

Maybe it’s a combination of those factors; either way, the Bolts couldn’t come all the way back even after making it interesting. At one point the game was 3-2 before a Bryan Rust breakaway goal and an empty-netter put things out of reach.

Both Matt Murray and Andrei Vasilevskiy faced plenty of tough chances and came through more often than not. We’ll see if there are any goal controversy rumblings, but each netminder came through at times tonight.

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Now the series shifts back to Pittsburgh for Game 7 with a Stanley Cup Final on the line. Excited and/or nervous yet?

More: Great goals by Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel.

Sidney Crosby scores a superstar goal

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With the Pittsburgh Penguins’ season on the line in Game 6, plenty of eyes are on big guns Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel.

Those marquee names are really coming through so far as they’ve now built a 3-0 lead through two periods against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

You likely already saw Kessel’s display of high-end hand-eye coordination (if not, check it here). Kris Letang scored his first goal of the series to make it 2-0 on a very tricky, well-placed shot.

The highlight really might be Crosby’s tally, though. He left multiple Lightning players baffled and beat a very-much-game Andrei Vasilevskiy to beef that lead up 3-0.